Net "Radio" Thrives; May Violate Anti-Piracy Act

A few years ago, when media pundits began discussing the possible ramifications of 500 channels of television, the concept of "narrowcasting" quickly became the buzzword du jour. The idea was that programming in the future would be aimed at increasingly better-defined markets. Rather than an all-sports channel, an astute broadcaster would operate multiple channels devoted to individual sports: an all-basketball channel, for example, or round-the-clock motor sports. Advertising tailored for a tightly defined market might prove more efficient than its shotgun-effect equivalent.

Television has made steps toward narrowcasting---ESPN is a good example---but the Internet is light-years ahead when it comes to reaching special-interest groups with highly specific forms of information and entertainment.

Imagine Radio, an Internet music site with custom-profile features, is edging dangerously close to CD-compiler territory. IR uses technology developed by Silver Island, a company with which it recently merged, to enable easy access by listeners to programs consisting of their favorite artists. Instead of listening to a wide variety of country music, an Imagine Radio listener might enjoy a steady sonic diet of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Mary Chapin Carpenter---as if from a long-distance CD changer.

Pertinent information about any song in play---title, artist, album name, record label---is displayed onscreen, with reviews of the artists and a link to CDnow just a mouse-click away. Imagine Radio's system is compatible with Microsoft's Media Player and RealNetworks' RealPlayer audio software. The complete package makes Imagine Radio promising as a potential source of trouble-free background music, if it weren't for the fact that IR and similar operations are running afoul of both existing and pending copyright-protection laws.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which passed Congress in August, will apply legal pressure to interactive services like Imagine Radio's. The act defines such a service as "one that enables a member of the public to receive a transmission of a program specially created for the recipient, or on request, a transmission of a particular sound recording, whether or not as part of a program, which is selected by or on behalf of the recipient." Imagine Radio doesn't let its users select specific songs, but dances around the "request" issue by letting them rate performers, thereby compiling a bank of favorite artists that can be tapped into as a listening source.

The Recording Industry Association of America wants all 'Internet radio stations' to pay statutory license fees to record companies for the right to play music, just like their AM and FM counterparts. Operations like Imagine Radio, which gear their playlists according to listener preferences, might be required to sign additional licensing agreements to stay in business.

Since the dawn of the Internet as it is now evolving, the unlicensed use of copyrighted intellectual properties---text, photos, graphics, and sound---has been a widespread practice among cybernauts who felt that the accumulated output of the human imagination was a natural resource free for all to use. This premise was a recurring editorial theme in Wired magazine, which repeatedly hammered at the archaic notion of ownership of intellectual property. "The Internet will change all that" became a tenet of the digital religion. Many amateur Webbians sincerely believe that whatever art, music, or literature exists is there to be used without regard for compensating the creators.

Legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is intended to reverse this trend. One problem that national legislation cannot address is the fact that the Internet is a truly global phenomenon. Sites originating far outside a nation's borders can be received just as easily as one set up in the house next door.

There doesn't seem to be any easy cure for the problem, but the problem itself may be overrated. DENradio, a Vancouver, BC-based Internet radio station, draws only about 400 listeners worldwide for its most popular program: Tom Lucas' Retro-Rock Request Show.

"We're not fooling anybody," says Hugh Dobbie, president of Interactive Netcasting Systems, which runs DENradio. "This is narrowcasting. We're not hitting 50 million Net users. Nobody is. The Net is full of narrow markets." Dobbie admits that he has started making some money with DENradio---charging advertisers $30 to $50 per one thousand listeners. In addition, he's tapped into the music market with a new twist on an old theme. Interactive Netcasting Systems repackages DENradio's professional-quality programming and syndicates it to conventional radio stations.